Looking to Upgrade? Should you go Full Frame for your next D-SLR?

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With the advent of full frame D-SLRs a few years ago many pros and amateurs alike were excited to be able to go back to the familiar "35mm" perspective and focal lengths on their lenses. Long limited by technology to APS-C size (about 2/3 the size of 35mm) sensors digital was finally able to go toe to toe with film. But the initial cameras cost nearly $8,000, putting them out of the range of most photographers. But the newest crop of full frame models have brought the costs down to a fraction of that. So should you go back to full frame with your next camera purchase? We'll take a look at some of the models and pros and cons...
 
Bigger Pixels Can Make Better Photos
The math of full frame is confusing but actually fairly simple. If you put a fixed number of pixels into a sensor, full frame gives you more space for each pixel (technically called a photosite or well). That means it can capture more light (in the form of photons) and do a better job of telling light from the image apart from the electrical noise that runs around in every camera. The result is much better low light performance in the form of better color and lower noise at high ISOs.
 
As one example, the Nikon D700 (which uses the same full frame sensor as the more expensive D3) can capture images easily at 1-2 stops higher ISO  than its sibling the Nikon D300S which uses the smaller "1.5" multiplier DX sensor (also known as APS-C). Practically speaking that means you can use up to four times the shutter speed or get two more stops of depth of field with the full frame version.
 
For Canon shooters the similar tradeoff is between the prosumer small sensor Canon 7D and the full frame Canon 5D Mark II. This image of a leopard taken after sunset on one of my African Photo Safaris wouldn't have been possible without the full frame sensor in the D3 I was using: 
 Female Leopard Examining our Safari Truck
Obviously full frame can be crucial when photographing indoor sports, low light wildlife action often found pre-dawn and post-sunset, and scenics and interiors without a tripod, for example. It is amazingly freeing to know that if needed you can crank your camera ISO up to 3200 or even higher if needed. Of course it's always better to keep your ISO as low as you can for maximum image quality. The Nikon D3S pushes the envelope even further, with another stop of added low light performance over the Nikon D3.
 
The True Cost of Full Frame
For both Canon and Nikon shooters the first tradeoff for going full frame is the cost of the camera body. The full frame prosumer models with very similar features to their small sensor cousins will cost you nearly $1,000 more. If you've got a tight budget then you're better off sticking with the smaller sensor models. Later we'll talk about the other additional costs you'll incur with full frame.
 
Of course this means that if you want any type of entry level or "budget" camera you'll be limited to smaller sensor models like the exciting new Nikon D3100 or the Canon 50D. At least that simplfies your choices!
 
In the Pro line the costs run even higher, with the full frame Nikon D3X  costing $7,400 and the Canon 1DS Mark III  around $6,200 while the smaller sensor faster versions--the Nikon D3S  runs $5200 and the Canon 1D Mark IV is just under $5,000.
 
The real cost of switching to full frame isn't only in the camera body, but in lenses. Small form factor lenses can be light, small and highly functional. Because they only need to resolve the image on a small sensor they are easier to design and build. The result is easy on your wallet and your back.
 
As an example, the ultra-popular Nikon 18-200mm DX f/3.5-f/5.6G is a nearly pro quality "one size fits all" lens for DX format Nikons selling for about $750. The minute you shift to full frame you'll need to carry two lenses to replace it. For example the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-f/5.6G and the Nikon 70-300mm f/4-f/5.6--totalling nearly $1200 and of course requiring changing lenses and a larger camera bag.
 
Nikon is attempting to address this issue with the newly announced Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-f/5.6 super-zoom with VR & AF-S which you can pre-order for $1049. This lens is guaranteed to be an exciting alternative for those of us with at least one full frame camera who really miss the versatility of the 18-200.
 
Canon shooters already have a full-frame super-zoom option, but it is quite a monster as the Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-f/5.6 USM lens sells for $2,420 and weighs a hefty 3.7 pounds. The Nikon version will weigh under 2 pounds but of course it is too early to judge its performance and image quality.
 
Telephoto lenses can push the discrepency even further. Moving from a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VR II lens to a 400mm f/2.8 lens to keep the same effective focal length for example will cost you a cool $3,000 additional and a few extra pounds of weight. This Puffin image captured on our Alaska Photo Safari this year was a cinch with a Nikon 200-400mm lens with a 1.4x Teleconverter on my Nikon D300S, but would have required much more lens if I'd been using my D700.
 
djc_2718
 
New Sensors, New Lenses
In addition to needing "full frame" friendly lenses its important to realize that many older lens designs that worked just fine with film will vignette (have darker corners) when used with full frame digital cameras. This is because the sensor is more sensitive to the angle of light than film was. Nikon, for example, has updated its legendary 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR lens partially to address this issue for their pro users.
Opinions vary on how severe the vignetting is, and it is not too difficult to correct in Photoshop in any case, but if you're in doubt make sure and leave some of your budget for upgrading your existing lenses if you make the jump to full frame.
The Brighter Side of Full Frame
Of course you get some benefit from the lower noise of the full frame sensor so rather than thinking you need to upgrade all your telephoto lenses when you go full frame its reasonable to think of the switch as the same as removing a 1.4x Teleconverter. So the fix is simple--add a teleconverter to your telephoto lenses. I detailed this tradeoff in a blog post explaining the situation when I first started shooting with both full frame and small sensor cameras.
 
And then there is wide-angle shooting. With the ubiquitous 18-200 you'll only get to an effective focal length of 27mm on the wide end. Even with the nearly essential Nikon 12-24mm DX zoom the widest you can go is an effective 18mm. Shots like this one of Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone that I captured at 12mm with the lovely Sigma 12-24mm zoom (whch I compared with the Nikon 14-24mm last month in my blog on cardinalphoto.com) just aren't possible:
 Pl_MidwayBasinYNP_0067
 
Whether it is wide-angle images like this one or low light action images like the monk below from my Southeast Asian Photo Safari full frame clearly has large advantages. Whether they are worth the extra effort and cost is a decision you'll need to make for yourself. Armed with the information in this post hopefully you can at least make your next D-SLR buying decision with your eyes open!
Monk seeking Alms pre-dawn
 
 
Perhaps you'll make the same decision I have and start using both formats depending on the project and the subject.
 
 
Learning More
If you're enjoying our posts here on B&H Insights then we welcome you to visit our information website nikondigital.org (also conveniently accessible as canondigital.org, since we cover not just Nikon but also Sigma and Sony and compatible photographic equipment) and our photo and safari website (we offer educational and enjoyable photo safaris to Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, Texas and Alaska), cardinalphoto.com. You can also subscribe directly to our monthly DigitalPro Shooter to keep up with our latest news and analysis.
 

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It's funny you posted this today because I'm in the middle of a fun purchase, but I'm torn between the Canon 5D Mark II (full frame) and the Canon 7D. Fortunately, I have a nice budget and can choose which one I want to get. I want a total solution for photo and video. I know for photo, full frame is the way to go, especially in low light, but then all the wedding video guys out there like the 7D because of its size and the crop factor so they can get in tight. i can't figure out what to do, so I'm going to B&H to actually touch and feel these cameras and talk to some people who know more than me.

Joe--Yes, there's no perfect answer. That's one of the greatest things about B&H. In an era of online megastores (including B&H of course) they also still have such an awesome physical store where you really can work hands on with just about any piece of gear on the planet. Let us know what you decide!--David

Magrino, i bought both 5d mark ii and canon t2i (not the 7d yet). so for $900 more just get the t2i.

I too am excited about the 28-300 for what I do (ski pics) it will be killer.

I do shoot alot of full frame for interior stuff with the 14-24 which along with the 24-70 Nikon introduced at the same time are 2 of the best pieces of glass I've used since the 135mm Q series. 

That said being a sport guy I shoot 90% cropped and with the D3 and the results are money (literarly) but it is great to have the wide angle option of full frame. The next thing I want is video good enough to frame grab images the quality the camera produces, the D3s just doesn't quite cut it.

Gav 

 APS-C is actually less than 50% the size of 35mm film (864 square mm vs. 370 sq. mm.), not 2/3rd's as indicated.  Due to lens geometry, the crop factor is 1.5 times.  You can run a simple web search and see this--it's just that the camera companies want to obfuscate this fact.

Older lenses (both AF and manual focus Nikons anyway) work great on FX full frame digitals, like the D700.  It's not like Nikon discontinued all of their AF-D lenses (some of which date back to the1980's or before like the 50mm) as soon as the D3 came out.  And older Nikon AF lenses, especially used, will be MUCH cheaper to buy than the newest Nikon offerings with all their new tech-wiz-bang. And if you are upgrading from DX, older lenses are often cheaper than their DX cousins as well.  Yes, new Nikon glass is nice, but older lenses work fine and are a great alternative.

 @new--To make sure we are on the same page, yes there is 1/2 the _area_ on an APS-C sensor because each side is 2/3 as long--thus the 1.5 "crop factor" (the reciprocal of 2/3 is 3/2 or 1.5)

I can't agree with your blanket statement that older Nikon glass works "great" on FX cameras. Many of those lenses have substantial light fall off when used with FX (for example my beloved 70-200 AF-S--which is one big reason Nikon has come up with a newer and unfortunately more expensive version). That fall off may not bother you, but it does bother many photographers and therefore can not be ignored.

In the discussion of full frame versus APS-C sensors, nothing is stated regarding sharpness and clarity between the two. Will I get better quality prints with a full frame Nikon D700 versus a D80 assuming normal lighting conditions?

You will get better dynamic range with a D700 over a D90 but that is more to improvements in sensor design than sensor size. If you compare a D300s to a D700 you will only notice a diference over 1000 ISO.

There is a lot of hype over the high ISO of the D300s and D300. Resolution and noise is low, but colour goes flat it high ISOs. I use a Fuji S5 (DX) as well as Nikon,  this has 6mp + 6m smaller cellls for highlights. I recon the Fuji has better DR amd colours than the D700 at 1600ISO.

I could not see limiting myself to either format exclusively.  For birds, I enjoy the additional reach of the DX system but there is no substitute for the FX system for scenics, etc so I have both - D300 and D3S.

Why do you refer to the D3s as a "smaller sensor?" It's full-frame.  

@Roger--My bad. I was looking for a way to show the extra cost of the larger size sensor and of course the difference between the D3X and D3S is resolution, not size as you correctly point out. I guess for Nikon the closest apples to apples full frame vs. DX is the pricing of the D700 & D300S at about $1K difference. The conclusion is the same but I need to fix the models I use to illustrate it.

I found this article helpful. I am currently shooting with a Canon 7d and considering adding at least the 6d with the 24-105 lens, with the bigger more expensive 5d mkiii still in the back of my mind.

B&H is where I buy my gear, you folks are the best, Thank you